Bytesback

Venture capital for dummies

The history of the tech industry is rife with stories of people plunking down large wads of dough for products that may or may not ever see the light of day, nor sell a single unit. The idea is that every once in a while one of these inventions actually takes off, and the guys with the dough (known as venture capitalists) get very, very wealthy.

One such venture that has attracted some high-profile capital is a device known as "it", or by the code name "ginger". Almost nothing is known about this product - what it is, what it does, what it is made of, and how much it will cost are all heavily guarded secrets.

Those who have been allowed in on the secret (in exchange for large wads of dough) include such names as John Doerr (a well-known backer of Silicon Valley startups), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon.com) and Steve Jobs (who has never backed a dud product in his life. Except the Lisa. And the Apple III. And the NeXT cube . . .).

Its inventor, Dean Kamen, invented the first drug infusion machine, and later developed the insulin pump and a dialysis machine. "ginger", however, is not a medical invention. Some have speculated that it might be an energy source, a personal transportation device (Kamen also invented a wheelchair that can go up stairs), or even a hovercraft or a Star Trek-style transporter.

This kind of secrecy is not unusual, and the highly entrepreneurial list of investors is not surprising.

What is unusual is that the normally conservative Harvard Business School Press has invested $US250,000 for the rights to a book about "ginger" when it becomes available, sometime in 2002.

We, however, would not have paid so much for a book about "ginger". "Ginger", after all, has not had terribly much success at all since leaving the Spice Girls. And she was our least favourite of all the castaways: we're Mary-Ann fans.

Sublime or subliminal?

Ask Jeeves is one of the growing number of "natural language" search engines cropping up on the Web. Point your browser at www.aj.com, type a question in actual English, and "Jeeves" does some whiz-bang trickery to try to work out what your question might mean. Rather than answers, it offers several interpretations of your question, from which you can choose the one most like what you wanted to know.

Following so far? Well, one of our favourite pastime when we're really, really bored is asking Jeeves random silly questions and ridiculing the random silly output. The question below, for instance, appears to illustrate certain underlying political opinions about the US's new president (fourth one down):

The answer to the question, incidentally, leads to a rather interesting and illuminating site at www.ooze.com/finger/html/toc.html where all of your burning questions about why it's rude for your middle finger to travel alone are answered. Ah, the wonders of the Web.

Bytesback quote of the month

OK, so we've never had a quote of the month before, and we may well never have one again. And this quote wasn't delivered this month. But it's cool.

"Imagine if every Thursday your shoes exploded if you tied them the usual way. This happens to us all the time with computers, and nobody thinks of complaining." - Jeff Raskin, the guy who invented the Macintosh.

Lesson: only take cash

If you will allow a grotesquely mixed metaphor, many fingers got burnt last year when the dot-com bubble burst (I don't know, maybe it was a flammable bubble?). Most of these fingers belonged to rich investors looking to get richer while the getting was good. Others belonged to techie ideologues who somehow failed to notice that successful businesses generally have to make money from somewhere.

Most tragic of all, though, are the innocent victims. Among these include pop-culture icon and TV/film star William Shatner. Shatner was signed on to do ads for an online grocery store called Priceline.com (apparently unrelated to the discount pharmacist of similar name that operates here). For the use of his instantly recognisable face and inspirational voice, he was paid in stock. Not a bad deal, when it was trading at a peak of around $US130 a share. After the bubble-flame, thing, though, the stock was trading at around $0.35 a share - somewhat undervaluing Shatner's endorsements, we think.

Get back at geeks

Ever had one of those days when the propeller on your head is having trouble keeping pace with those of the other geeks in your section? Well fear not, you may not be the first in line for those redundancy cheques when your Internet start-up falls over.

Hide your technical ineptitude with this fine list of responses, compiled by the dudes at Pigdog Journal (http://pigdog.org). Now armed with responses like, "Yeah, or we could all just plink away on Amigas or something", you'll be ready to stump the biggest smart arse techie you know. And if you need the big guns - we recommend No. 70. That'll keep a certain 'know it all' quiet for a week!

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